Children, Adults Of All Abilities Play Side By Side On Scarlet's Playground In Commerce Township

Stephen Clark: "You start breaking down...stereotypes if kids get together and play"

WWJ News
June 05, 2020 - 3:23 pm

(WWJ) Scarlet’s Playground—a play area aimed at breaking down barriers between children and adult of all abilities—is open in Commerce Township.

The only all-inclusive playground in Michigan is named after retired WOMC morning show co-host Stephen Clark’s 7 ½ year-old granddaughter. Clark said it is the largest ramped playground in the Midwest. 

Scarlet has lived with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA)--a genetic illness that affects the central nervous system and voluntary muscle system--since she was a baby and is in a wheelchair.

She cut the ribbon at a dedication ceremony before rolling onto the playground with one of her best friends, John, whom she met in therapy.

“She was so excited!” Stephen Clark told WWJ’s Christina McDaniel. “She was so excited she didn’t sleep last night!”

This labor of love for the Clark family is aimed at truly bringing all children together; a promise that many “barrier free” playgrounds make, but do not keep.

“A barrier free playground is supposed to break down barriers…but we found, what it did is put up new barriers,” Clark said.  “It got kids at one playground staring across the divide at kids on the other playground, saying that’s them, we’re us.”

That changed Friday in Dodge Park No. 5 on the corner of Commerce and South Commerce.  

Children in wheelchairs, and not in wheelchairs, played side by side on the spinners; and laughed together on the ramps.

It is a sight Emily Kusiak of Madison Heights never thought she would see. Her daughter, 7, is also in a wheelchair.

“We haven’t been to any playgrounds,” Kusiak said. “She has a swing at her playground at school, and that’s the most she’s ever been able to do there.”

Stephen Clark; his wife, Larenne, their non-profit, Scarlet’s Smile, and the community worked for three and a half years to raise $1.5 million for the project. The money came from sponsors, fundraisers and private donations.

Obstacles abounded along the way. First, Oakland County ordered all playgrounds to close to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Friday was the first day they were allowed to open since the pandemic began in Michigan.

“We expected we’d have a big old eight-foot fence around it for who knows how long,” Clark said. “Since everything opened up, we jumped aboard. We said ‘Okay This is it! We’re going to have this thing opened by Friday.”

In May; the Oakland County Sheriff arrested a man who confessed to vandalizing Scarlet’s Playground with a pair of bolt cutters. Police say a teenager also took part in the vandalism.

Despite it all, Scarlet’s Playground is open.

Clark said it sends an important message during these divisive times.

“Kids at this age, they start to realize she’s in a wheelchair but she’s no different than them. She’s in a wheelchair, but it’s not what defines her. If these kids learn that, then maybe their kids will learn that,” Clark said. “And that’s how you start breaking down all sorts of stereotypes, if kids just get together and play.”

Kusiak could not stop smiling watching her daughter join in on the fun.

“I’m happy,” she said. “Just really happy.”